Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

Our special little Japanese snowman says, "Chiiiiizu!"

The first weekend in February Joe and I headed way up north to the city of Sapporo on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido for a dose of Ohio-like weather. The attraction: the Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival.

More than 2 million tourists poured into Sapporo to celebrate the 60th year of the festival, which is world famous for its impressive life-size snow monuments and ice sculptures, like these:

Cool, huh? (Hah! Pun intended!) That last one is a life-size reproduction of Hamamatsu Castle in western Shizuoka Prefecture, where Honda was founded. The snow statue is the castle's resident, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who is considered one of the three people most important to Japan's unification. It took 4,000 people 29 days to create this sculpture with 4.2 million pounds of snow! They brought in the snow in dump trucks — 350 loads. Is that incredible or what?

So the snow festival was a lovely time. It was cold but perfectly bearable — only about 25 degrees. Aside from a few short breaks, it was practically a blizzard the entire time. It snowed so much that after being outside for just a couple minutes the snow was starting to pile up all over us. I didn't mind though — it was fun to get to play around in the snow again (especially because I didn't have to drive in it!). And my long johns kept me nice and toasty. Along the path of snow monuments there were small concert performances, snow boarding stunts and plenty of Japanese and international food vendors. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the walkway wasn't salted, so it was essentially one long ice slick. I fell once and smashed my hip. Glad I'm not 80 years old. Maybe there's some environmental reason the Japanese wouldn't salt the sidewalks?

Besides the gargantuan snow monuments, there also were hundreds of smaller snow sculptures — though when I say "smaller," I mean they were still bigger than Joe. Among my favorites were some of the characters out of Japanese pop culture.


Don't know who these buggers are, but they're cute!

Stitch! Every Japanese kid who rounded the corner and saw this yelled "STITCHI!"

The downtown area had a few blocks of ice sculptures, which were equally amazing.

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) dolls

An ice bar!

This one had lots of fish and crabs frozen into the sculpture itself. Hokkaido is famous for its fresh seafood, especially crab, which Joe and I decided to try. We went to a restaurant recommended by the tourism office — something good but not overly fancy — and after recovering from sticker shock ordered a large boiled "hairy crab" for 7,500 yen (around $75 — well, more with the weak dollar now).  It looked like this guy:

We actually were seated at a bar overlooking a pool of the crabs that would eventually end up on patrons' plates.

I wish we could say we melted at the taste, but the truth is the crab was smaller than we expected and served cold (I guess that's the way they do it there) with an icky vinegary-tasting dipping sauce. We were both disappointed. I mean, it was alright — but not worth what we paid. No more hairy crabs for us!

In addition to the snow and ice sculpture areas, we hit a third part of the city set up with giant snow slides and other activities for kids, like building snowmen and getting pulled in an inflatable raft behind a snowmobile. The slides were pretty grand — reminded me of bigger versions of the slide you see in the movie "Christmas Story" when the kids go to visit Santa in the mall. And the kids who slid down them had the same reactions, too — stunned looks often followed by shrieks of terror at the bottom. Precious!

The first thing I did there was build our very own miniature Japanese snowman (miniature... Japanese... of course!) Apparently the Japanese make snowmen with just two big snowballs, not three. Organizers actually handed me two silver mixing bowls and instructed me to fill them with snow and mash them together to make each ball, and some wooden pieces for the face. It was the picture of efficiency! Though all quite uniform (and as such, quite Japanese!). I didn't mind though; I thought the army of little snowmen was darling.

Me and my baby snowman

After we'd thoroughly explored all the snow art, we walked around the city of Sapporo a bit, too. Perhaps one of the most famous tourist attractions we checked out was the Sapporo clock tower, a building constructed in 1878 that looked surprisingly like it belonged on a town square back in Ohio. And there's a reason for that — as Wikipedia informs me, the building is one of the few surviving Western style buildings in Sapporo, a city developed in the 1870s with the assistance of the American government. This clock tower serves as a symbol of the city.

Sapporo clock tower

Even better was the Hokkaido government office building, a stately old red-brick building that also reminded me of home.

The evergreens around the government building were all being supported by pole and rope contraptions to keep the massive amounts of snow from destroying them.

I thought the piles of snow lining the branches were neat.

Downtown Sapporo at night

I came away with a great impression of Sapporo. The city looked so clean and new and just beautiful in the snow.

The Hondori shopping arcade wasn't bad, either, though I spent most of my time there admiring its giant pet shop instead of browsing around all the shops.

Oh, and I couldn't leave out one last thing, so classically Japanese in its inappropriateness. As we were walking along past all the perfectly ordinary shops and restaurants, Joe exclaims, "Look!" and points to the window of a costume shop:

Let's see. What do I want to be for Halloween next year? Frankenstein... hunter in redneck camo hat...Oh! S.S. officer! ... Hmmmm...


Al said...

We plan to do this next year. How many days would you recommend? Did you like the place you stayed? If so, what was it and how much was it?

Gail said...

Hi Al,
We flew to Sapporo on a Saturday afternoon, stayed two nights and flew back on Monday afternoon. That gave us plenty of time to see the whole festival at a leisurely pace. By the time we arrived Saturday, got settled in the hotel and got dinner, we had time to check out the main drag of giant ice sculptures all lit up Saturday night. Sunday morning we hit the kids area with the giant slides and snowmen, headed back to the hotel to relax a bit that afternoon and then went out for a crab dinner and the ice scuptures Sunday evening. We spent Monday morning walking around checking out the buildings around town and the Hondori shopping area. I felt that two nights gave us plenty of time to see what we wanted to see. If you are interested in seeing some of the areas other attractions you may want to stay another day or two. The Sapporo zoo is one of the largest in Japan and has a good reputation, and it has some of it's own snow sculpture attractions too (but I didn't get the impression it was really grand). There are also tours of the Sapporo beer factory, and of course there's always skiing.

Our plane tickets and hotel accomodations were part of a package deal we purchased through 1ACE Travel Agency near Parco in downtown Hiroshima (they speak English). ANA airlines puts the packages out every year for reasonable prices. I don't remember exactly what we paid - we paid in cash in October and my memory's fading - but I think it was around 60,000 yen. The price varies depending on how nice of a hotel you want. They offer you four levels, A, B, C and D, with A being the nicest and D being the crummiest. We wanted a C class hotel, but they were already booked up by the time we bought our package in October. So we got a B class hotel called the Hotel Fino and it was without question the nicest hotel we've stayed in in Japan so far. I highly recommend it. The rooms were new, totally spotless, quiet, roomy and very tastefully decorated. Beds were very comfortable with very nice linens and pillows. Just like a nice western hotel. My only complaint was that we couldn't seem to lower the thermostat so it was a little too warm at night.

Here's the hotel's website (the pictures give you a very good idea of exactly how it will look):

Bonus, the clerks at the front desk spoke English well enough to help us out. And it was conveniently located near the JR station, and an easy 10 or 15 minute walk to the main action of the Snow Festival.

As I said before, flights and accomodations for the Snow Festival book up really early, so plan accordingly! I recommend that you keep an eye on the travel agencies starting in September to see when they start peddling the Snow Festival packages, and as soon as you see them come out, don't drag your feet purchasing one.

Hope this all helps. If you have any other questions let me know!

Gail said...

One other thing - our package deal included free breakfast at the hotel both days. And it was a very nice buffet style breakfast!

Gail said...

I double checked the price. It was in fact right around 60,000 yen per person.

Anonymous said...

Was this little vacation during an actual Japanese vacation period or just during the weekend? I'm going to be doing JET and would love to see the Yuki Matsuri and snowboard some. If it is just the weekend, then that's shorter than I had hoped for.

Gail said...

It's held for one week in early February. Travel agencies sell packages for however many days you want.